HALF “THE BAPTIZED”
Michael Sweeney’s article (“Beyond Personal Piety,” March 8) identifies a crisis that is but a symptom of our church’s real crisis. A cure requires more.
The church’s real crisis is the unmitigated commitment of “the hierarchical priesthood, the priesthood of the ordained” to the ideology of patriarchy. It is this ideology that has for centuries legitimized—in both theory and practice—myriad forms of the demeaning and denigrating of women. The name for this is sexism. And it is sexism that is the taproot of the church’s clericalism, the abusive exercise of power that is endemic to any religious system where the authority to govern resides solely in those (in the church’s case, men) with sacralized identities (or the “ordained”).
Nothing that Sweeney advocates ever questions the church’s clericalist corruption nourished as it is by its sexist root in its patriarchal soil. In fact, it could be argued that emphasizing the laity’s role in the church’s “redemptive mission...for the sake of the world” can lead to the consequence, however unintended, of diverting the laity’s attention away from the clear need for “transforming the very structures” of the church itself.
Hence, while advocating for “the ecclesial role proper to the laity” is better than claiming that the laity’s only appropriate vocation is “to be cared for,” Sweeney’s suggestions still preserve a dichotomous ecclesial system as androcentric as it is patriarchal, as sexist as it is clericalist.
It is long past time for those among the ordained to recognize that “the redemptive mission of Christ” includes taking seriously the full implication of Sweeney’s claim, that “each of the baptized [is] an alter Christus—another Christ.” At this point in human history, not recognizing what that means for a sacramental church, where over half of “the baptized” are excluded from one of its seven sacraments, is a clear sign that the game is over.
THE LAITY AS TEACHER
Congratulations to Michael Sweeney for his insightful contribution to the evolving theology of the laity. At least three issues emerge from Sweeney’s essay that may prove pivotal to the line of theological development he appears to have in mind.
First, Sweeney makes a rather sharp distinction between the ministry of the church to the laity and the mission of the church to the world. The former pertains to the responsibilities of clerics; the latter, especially since Vatican II, has been considered the appropriate sphere for the mission of the laity. But one wonders whether this distinction is sustainable. The problem, or so it seems to me, is beginning with the traditional distinction between clerics, religious, and laity. Religious leave the world and clerics are called to service at the altar. The laity are the remaining People of God; they live ordinary lives in the world. In general, they marry, raise families, and serve as the backbone of the economy and society. The laity ask how Christian marriage and family life can respond to the changing roles of women in society and an economy that requires both spouses to work in order to support a family. Is it natural to repair a hernia, to treat cancer, to medically control conception, to insert a PEG tube or start a respirator in order to artificially prolong the lives of the dying? These are some of the questions the laity confront in the course of their ordinary lives personally and professionally. They pose questions of meaning and value. The laity, simply because they live in the world, have a privileged perspective on the identification and articulation of contemporary religious questions, as well as the adequacy of responses to such questions.
Sweeney proposes the notion of “coresponsibililty” as a hermeneutical tool to sort out the respective duties and obligations of clergy, religious, and laity. The term captures as well as or better than any other the emerging awareness of the People of God as a whole for the ministry and mission of the church. But how are we to discern the respective duties of clerics, religious, and laity in this new model of the church?
This question leads to my second point. The entire People of God, by virtue of their baptism, partake in the three offices of Christ: prophet, priest, and king. They are called to teach, to sanctify, and to govern. But it remains unclear what the active voice of the laity ought to be in the teaching office of the church, its sacramental office, and its governance. Does the laity’s response to Humanae vitae (granted, there are a number of different responses) constitute an example of the active teaching office of the laity? The sorting out of the appropriate responsibilities of the clergy, religious, and laity is a crucial theological question that cries out for clarification.
Third, if “coresponsibility” has become a central category in the discernment of the appropriate roles of clergy, religious, and laity in the life of the church, what is the term that it replaces? The answer to that question, I believe, is “authority.” The hierarchy has in the past served as the exclusive arbitrator of the roles and functions of clerics, religious, and laity. If the laity are to have an active voice in the teaching, sacramental, and governing offices of the church, the hierarchy will need to relinquish some dimensions of its control and governance of the church. Any discussion of an emerging theology of the laity must address the issue of authority in the church.
John A. Gallagher
New Buffalo, Mich.
O SACRED HEAD, SURROUNDED
Thank you for David Unger’s article “I Thought I Knew Him” (March 22). His understanding of this wonderful painting touched my soul. It is easy to dismiss the humanity of Jesus, especially in the realm of spiritual suffering. That the human Jesus experienced depression that “folded in” on his mind had never occurred to me. I had imagined he shared our physical suffering, but not the kind that plagues our scattered brains.
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